Storm Sense

GIS helps this North Carolina city manage the cycle of disaster recovery and preparedness.

by / May 26, 2005
When this winter's storm season brings rain and wind, Greensboro, N.C., will be ready.

A new software platform tying together existing IT systems, including an application ERP suite and an enterprise GIS, gives city administrators a new way to better maintain the city's storm water system, prepare for and mitigate disaster, and shorten the recovery process after a major storm.

A Matter of Infrastructure
Greensboro covers more than 113 square miles, including 1,100 miles of streets, and 2,940 miles of water and sewer mains under those streets. When a major storm rolls through, dumping rain and buffeting trees with stiff winds, the city's storm drain system is taxed to its limits.

"You can look at disaster recovery and preparedness as a cycle," said Stephen Sherman, Greensboro's GIS manager, explaining that the city is leaning on its new platform for predisaster mitigation, trying to identify the weak points in the city's infrastructure, which are subject to stress during a natural disaster, as well as the follow-up response.

A typical storm season consists of severe thunderstorms, Sherman said, citing a "micro-downburst" that hit the city with 80 mph winds a few years ago as one of the most memorable storms. Hurricanes can also be a problem, he added, though the city hasn't been hit with one of those for some time.

In the aftermath of a storm, flash flooding and wind damage present the biggest recovery challenges to the city. This is when predisaster mitigation pays off.

"We have a very robust system of preventive maintenance for our storm water features all year round, but particularly leading up to storm season," he said. "We identify storm water inlet features, like curb inlets and catch basins, that need to be cleaned out prior to storms. We also have streams running through Greensboro, and obviously you get blockages at culverts, bridge abutments and things of that nature."

Ensuring that all aspects of the city's storm water infrastructure can accept sudden large doses of water is critical. Tying the city's GIS to other citywide applications gives city administrators a simpler way to track maintenance tasks performed on various parts of the storm water infrastructure.

Integrating the Parts
City officials spent a year studying the most effective way to tie together existing IT systems -- including a Lawson ERP system, its GIS (from ESRI) and a one-call contact center for constituent services -- with the overall goal of better responses to citizen requests for various services.

To craft a better response strategy, city officials realized they needed to revise management of city assets and work orders for disparate departments. In August 2004, Greensboro awarded Datastream a contract for a software platform to manage assets and work orders across the enterprise.

The company's Datastream 7i platform allows the city to monitor how assets are used and how they perform, whether it's public works trucks fixing sewers or transportation crews removing trees from roads after a storm. As additional IT systems are plugged into the platform, city management gets access to more and more aggregated data to evaluate performance and city resource allocation.

The platform's modular design lets the city use Web services to tie its enterprise GIS to the platform, Sherman said, a task made more straightforward because the platform is built on open standards, such as Java and XML. Combining the GIS with the work order tracking system gives city departments the power to zero in on troublesome areas.

Analyzing response-time data for trends or odd patterns gives city management a better body of knowledge from which to forecast performance issues and make planning decisions.

Greensboro's Department of Transportation served as the guinea pig, he said, and the Environmental Services Department went live with the system in March. Later this year, the departments of Water Resources, and Parks and Recreation will be added. Sherman estimated that approximately half the city departments responsible for storm-related response have been integrated into the new platform.

"We've been using this product for just over six months, so we don't have a full year's cycle of storm activity," he said. "But one of the things we'll be able to identify will be those points of failure in the storm water system -- those places where we have repeated street flooding -- because that's going to guide us, engineeringwise, to identify solutions to those problems."

Greensboro is home to approximately 213,000 residents, and like others its size, the city is dealing with infrastructure burdens created by new development and growth. Building bigger pipes is one way to handle the growth, but there's more to it than that.

"It also involves, as new developments occur in the city, making sure that those are integrated into the storm system, that the downstream portions of the system are capable of handling those new developments," he said. "Much of that engineering work gets done in modeling software, but the actual management of the maintenance work in the new construction would be done in the Datastream platform."

The city's GIS can add specificity to work order tracking. Prior to integrating the GIS with the new work order system, the only level of detail available to staff was individual streets.

"We can actually issue work orders for each individual specific storm water feature," he said. "We know which catch basins got cleaned out and when, as opposed to a more vague record that we cleaned catch basins out along a stretch of road. We have a much more detailed history of exactly what got serviced when. We have about 17,000 catch basins in Greensboro, so it's not a trivial issue to keep up with the last time one got cleaned out."

Faster Reimbursements
Besides the physical benefits of properly maintaining the storm system before a storm arrives, Sherman said Greensboro anticipates financial benefits related to the follow-up efforts when the storm has passed.

"Most of these disasters also present an opportunity for some FEMA reimbursements from the storm damage," he explained. "By having the work orders all in one place, it will be much easier for us to accumulate all that information so we can properly put in our submissions to FEMA for reimbursements."

In the past, assembling the data to submit to FEMA was a lengthy and difficult process, primarily because city departments had their own work order tracking systems and their own way of tracking work associated with storm damage. The other problem with such systems is varying degrees of accuracy.

"In many cases, the work order systems weren't much better than paper and pencil: when a storm strikes, those kind of systems are stressed to the max," he said. "It's not uncommon, if you don't have a decent work management system in place, for departments to go out, do their business, get the roads clear, get the city back to business as usual, and then try to figure out afterward how much time they spent doing it. Tracking it that day, during the crisis, is not high on the list of priorities."
Shane Peterson Associate Editor